Russia halts Ukrainian offensive and goes on the attack

With fewer troops and less ammunition than the invader, Kyiv is now preparing for 2024, facing even greater obstacles in its attempt to recover occupied territory

Guerra de Rusia en Ucrania
Statue of a Soviet soldier in front of the remains of a cultural center destroyed by bombs on the outskirts of the Ukrainian town of Avdiika, on October 26.Libkos (Libkos via Getty Images)
Cristian Segura (special correspondent)

This past summer, Russia turned to North Korea, to help arm its troops in Ukraine. For many government officials — both in Kyiv and Washington — the fact that Vladimir Putin was turning to one of the poorest countries in the world was proof that Russia’s army was at its lowest point. “Russia in a quite a desperate mode and seeking support from North Korea,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh opined on September 14, coinciding with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia. However, the reality has been different.

Today, leading analysts of the war in Ukraine confirm that the artillery ammunition provided by North Korea has been decisive for Russia to go on the attack from the Donetsk front in the southeast and from the Kharkiv front in the northeast.

Russia hasn’t only managed to stop the Ukrainian offensive, but has — once again — advanced in key areas. In Avdiivka — a Ukrainian-controlled municipality at the gates of the city of Donetsk (illegally annexed by Russia) — the invading forces are attempting to lay siege to Ukrainian forces. On the Kupiansk front — on the eastern edge of Kharkiv province — the Russians have also advanced, subjecting Ukrainian units to a hell of artillery fire.

“The ammunition that has arrived from North Korea [has been decisive] in Avdiivka. And [the Russians] will receive much more than what they already have,” explains John Helin, a member of the Finnish military information group Black Bird. Ryan Evans and Michael Kofman — experts from the military analysis platform War on the Rocks — agreed with this analysis of the situation. In a podcast from October 18, they regretted that many mocked the agreement between Putin and Kim. “North Korea has enormous amounts of artillery — this move could be decisive,” Evans noted.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine are in the opposite situation: they suffer from a serious lack of personnel and ammunition. And this shortage is not just for the short-term, according to the experts consulted by EL PAÍS. The limitations will last for at least a year. Hence, in 2024, major Ukrainian advances have — for the moment — been ruled out.

The pessimistic messages shared between analysts, senior commanders and units on the battlefield are increasing. Denis Yaroslavskiy — the head of intelligence for the Ukrainian Army — warned in a radio interview on October 24 that the situation in Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi — a key railway and logistics hub for Ukraine — “is very difficult.”

“There are enemy assaults every minute and the objective is to besiege Kupiansk,” Yaroslavskii affirmed. “[The Russians] are suffering many casualties, but they’re quickly replacing them with new troops. We don’t see their strength decreasing.”

Defending Avdiivka is the main Ukrainian concern on the Donetsk front. However, the situation isn’t much better in the nearby Bakhmut region, where most of the resources from the summer offensive have been used up in the attempt to regain control of the city. In the more than four months that have passed since Ukraine began the counteroffensive, its army is still far from being able to surround the city, which is part of the strategy that has been followed to expel the invader from Bakhmut.

Petro Kuzyk — commander of the Svoboda infantry battalion — explained last Tuesday in the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda that the enemy surpasses them “in everything.” “They have more weapons and equipment of all kinds,” he said. Kyiv’s only advantage — according to Zukyz — is that Ukrainian soldiers are more competent.

The commander also confirmed what is happening along the 1,200-mile-long front. He admits that operations now simply correspond “to a war of positions, because total assaults are impossible.” Both sides — according to battalion commander Svoboda — have established so many obstacles to slow advances (especially minefields) that they have deterred any large-scale operation that would only bring about high losses. The result is a stagnant front.

At the beginning of October, EL PAÍS visited three Ukrainian military units from different branches of the armed forces along the Zaporizhzhia front: special forces, infantry and an armored brigade. Its officers confirmed that, in September, the months of direct assaults to break the Russian defenses with tanks and mechanized infantry ended, due to the enormous losses they were dealt in the minefields. The priority now is to put pressure on specific positions with squads or companies — each consisting of between six and 12 men — in addition to the intensive use of bomb drones. These tactics make it more difficult to make notable progress, but they help reduce casualties and equipment losses.

Evans corroborated this situation in his analysis for War on the Rocks. He also warned that Ukraine has two weeks left to achieve some tangible result, before the weather in fall and winter — the rain and then the cold — drastically slows down military operations. Russian military analysts assume that, in the next two weeks, there will be one more Ukrainian attempt to break through its second line of defenses on the Zaporizhzhia front, in an attempt to reach the municipality of Tokmak.

Kuzyk explained in Ukrainska Pravda that his biggest concern is the drastic reduction in ammunition, which has been exacerbated in recent weeks. He also concluded that either the problem of arsenal shortages is exceptionally serious, or the Ukrainian General Staff is reserving projectiles for a major operation.

The initial objective of the counteroffensive was to cut the logistical lines that connect Russia with Crimea, along the coast of the Sea of Azov. The way to achieve this was to liberate the city of Melitopol. However, over the months of the offensive, the Ukrainians only advanced about five miles, while Melitopolo is more than 43 miles away from the Ukrainian infantry.

Kyiv changed the objective at the end of summer: Tokmak — an important logistical point — suddenly became the new bastion to conquer in 2023. But the Ukrainian forces are still 12 miles away from Tokmak, like they were in August.  In a document published on October 19 by the Royal United Services Institute — the main security analysis center in the United Kingdom — researcher Jack Watling considered it “highly unlikely that an advance towards Tokmak will occur” in 2023.

The three lines of defense that the invader has been building since last summer have proven to be impregnable. John Helin from the Black Bird Group emphasizes that even success in overcoming the first line — in the town of Robotyne — isn’t assured, because the Russians are pressing on the flanks. The Finnish expert also rules out that the Ukrainian army can reach Tokmak in the remainder of the year. Instead, he opines that the Ukrainians should first expand the narrow strip through which they’re advancing — only six miles wide —  to avoid the risk of being cut off at the flanks.

The goals that the counteroffensive wished to achieve before winter have become less and less realistic as the months have passed. Taking Tokmak is one, while the other is liberating Bakhmut, as noted on October 12 by Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine. Few now believe that this is possible.

On the other hand, Petro Burkovskyi — the executive director of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Ukrainian think tank based in Kyiv — is one of the few who hopes that this is still possible, as he explained in a telephone interview with EL PAÍS. “We must believe in these objectives to raise the morale of our people… but if it cannot be done in a few weeks, it will [happen] in 20 weeks. This will determine future offensive campaigns.”

Air inferiority

Burkovskyi emphasizes that the time of any military operation doesn’t depend on the calendar, but on the available resources. In the future, he indicates, new weapons must arrive, such as the F-16 fighter jets promised by the United States. The clear air inferiority of the Ukrainian Air Force has been one of Kyiv’s principal setbacks in its attempts to regain territory. Regarding the pessimistic messages about Ukraine’s resources, the director of the think tank recalls that the Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu once wrote — more than two millennia ago — that one of the strategies in war is to confuse the enemy.

Helin warns that Ukraine must stop believing in “miracle weapons” that can change the direction of the war. The arrival of the German Leopard tanks wasn’t decisive, he indicates, just as F-16s or the recent incorporation of the American missiles with ATACMS cluster munitions won’t be, either.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy repeatedly demanded that he be provided with ATACMS long-range missiles. The recent bombing of a Russian helicopter base in Berdyansk with this weapon was celebrated by the Ukrainian authorities as a great success. However, Helin asks for caution, because the number of units received is small. And, above all, the missiles are medium-range (maxing out at 100 miles) and old.

“Ukraine has to sell optimism and results, because it fears that the world will forget about this war, just as it forgot about the one in Donbas [against the separatists in eastern Ukraine] in 2014. [If that occurs], Ukraine will end up being forced to sign an agreement with Russia, [like the 2014] Minsk agreements,” Helin concludes.

Another year without big advances

What international and national observers all agree on is that Ukraine has a serious problem: a shortage of ammunition. “We have a huge deficit of ammunition not just in Ukraine but all over the world,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal admitted this past Thursday in The Financial Times. “We understand we should produce this here in Ukraine because all around the world it’s finished, it’s depleted. All the warehouses are empty.”

The military industry of NATO countries doesn’t meet the Ukrainian demand. Jack Watling at the Royal United Services Institute estimates that Ukraine fires, on average, 200,000 artillery shells each month, the same amount that the United States produces in 10 months. Mykola Bielieskov — a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv — put it crudely in an October 16 report for the Atlantic Council. “The projected production [of weapons] is unlikely to meet Ukraine’s needs until the second half of 2024 or early 2025,” he said. “Anticipated supply shortfalls in key munitions will likely shape Ukraine’s strategic thinking for next year’s spring and summer campaigning seasons.”

Essentially, what Bielieskov predicts is that, in 2024, Ukraine will not be in a position to carry out operations that change the direction of the war. Russia, on the other hand, has its arms industry multiplying production in almost all areas, as Evans and Watling explain. “The United States and Europe can maintain the Ukrainian force, but [it’s unclear] whether they can contribute enough for a future offensive in the spring of 2024,” said Evans.

Helin is more explicit about the upcoming year that Ukraine will face: “In the next 12 months, it will be difficult for us to see a large-scale offensive like the one we [saw over the] summer. Attacking on several fronts — from Bakhmut to the Dnieper River — won’t be possible.”

Watling highlights that the situation is particularly complex for Ukraine, because it has to fulfill two opposing missions: on the one hand, military leadership needs to give rest to units that have been fighting for months and train new soldiers. Simultaneously, there’s the need to keep pressure on the invading forces. Evans emphasizes the latter necessity, because otherwise, what is happening in Avdiivka will be repeated. “The Russian tactic in Avdiivka — large artillery sweeps, followed by infantry assaults, all supported by aerial fire — is the threat that Ukraine will face in 2024,” said Evans. “That is why [the Ukrainians] cannot fail to maintain pressure on the front.”

Experts acknowledge that Russian casualties and material losses in Avdiivka are enormous, but these are sacrifices that Russia has already made at other points in the war. Burkovskyi is convinced that both armies need a pause in fighting to regain strength — he thinks that the Russian strategy in Avdiivka is to exhaust the Ukrainian soldiers to force said pause. Winter may be the optimal time to reduce intensity on the front, but the Armed Forces of Ukraine believe that Moscow is stockpiling missiles to launch a bombing campaign against the energy grid, which would — once again — leave millions of people without electricity, water or heat.

Analysts such as Evans see the lack of air defense missiles as “even more worrying.” The conflict in the Middle East will further reduce the ammunition made available to Ukraine, now that the United States is sending weapons to the Israelis and protecting its bases in the region.

“The long-term future doesn’t look good for Ukraine,” Kofman said during a podcast with War on the Rocks, citing the American arming of the Israelis and the Taiwanese, as well as the Republican Party’s opposition to providing military aid to Kyiv. The only solution he sees, he added, is for Germany to assume leadership in confronting Russia, which would allow the United States to take a step back.

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